Vote Suppression Guru: I Win I Win I Win!

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In this morning’s writeup of Supreme Court’s decision on Indiana’s voter ID law, The New York Times quoted someone familiar to TPM readers:

“This decision not only confirms the validity of photo ID laws, but it completely vindicates the Bush Justice Department and refutes those critics who claimed that the department somehow acted improperly when it approved Georgia’s photo ID law in 2005,” said Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission and a former Justice Department official.

It’s a reaction laden with a number of distortions. But the key one has to do with a crucial difference between Georgia’s 2005 law and Indiana’s law, as Joe Rich, the former chief of the voting section in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, told me. Rich, who last year opposed Spakovsky’ nomination to the FEC along with a group of other former voting section professionals, called Spakovsky’s contention that yesterday’s ruling vindicated his actions “disingenuous.”

“The Georgia law reviewed by the Justice Department required voters seeking the required voter ID to pay a fee that a federal court found created an unconstitutional poll tax,” Rich said. “But in Indiana the Supreme Court explicitly noted that photo identification cards ‘issued by Indiana’s [Bureau of Motor Vehicles] are . . . free’ and thus there was no issue of creating an unconstitutional poll tax.”

Spakovsky and other political appointees overruled staff attorneys who’d recommended against approving Georgia’s voter ID law, because of concerns that the law would discriminate against poor and minority voters. It was just a part of Spakovsky’s legacy of ignoring and intimidating section employees, and generally doing what he could to effect policies that would disenfranchise voters.

Under the Voting Rights Act, parts of the country with a history of discrimination must demonstrate to the Justice Department that new legislation does not discriminate against minority voters. In the case of Georgia’s law, supporters of the law didn’t do much of anything to demonstrate that the law wouldn’t discriminate against African-Americans.

In fact, quite the opposite. Georgia state Rep. Sue Burmeister, the sponsor of the bill, told voting section staff that “if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud,” and that “when black voters in her black precincts are not paid to vote, they do not go to the polls.”

Indiana’s law had not required review by the Justice Department, Rich said. “Therefore, there was no issue in review of the Indiana law concerning whether the state could meet its burden of demonstrating that the law did not hurt minority voters, as is required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That was the only issue before Justice Department in its review of the Georgia law and career attorneys, in an in-depth memo, found that the law did hurt minority voters and accordingly recommended an objection to the law.”

So I think it’s fair to say that Spakovsky has yet to be “completely vindicated.”